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To Preserve and Improve

Edmund Burke, a British Member of Parliament during the American Revolution and defender of the American colonists, once famously said “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” He also observed that “A disposition to preserve, and an ability to improve, taken together, would be my standard of a statesman.” Acknowledged as the philosophical founder of modern conservatism, Burke’s theories provide a common-sense route to achieve serious reform in our state government.  He was a proponent of organic reform that built upon inherited forms and traditions. He did not believe that reform based on abstract theory ever improved the institutions of government.

If we want to see proof of his assertions, we need only look at the efforts over the past seven years to reform our state government. Based upon the abstract notion that our Governor should have more power like those in other states, the current reform movement desires to rewrite the state constitution so that the Governor would control more of our state agencies and appoint our cabinet level officers. These reform efforts have largely failed in the Legislature because its underlying theory ignores South Carolina’s inherited form of government. In the same sense that Great Britain is controlled by the House of Commons and not the King, we are controlled by the Legislature, not the Governor – a tradition going back to 1729, the year that Burke was born.

How then do we “preserve and improve” our state government? Instead of rewriting our constitution to create a different system of governance, the Legislature should concentrate on those people already in positions of oversight at each agency. The Legislature appoints many citizens to various commissions and boards to provide oversight. Beyond the appointments, the relationship remains passive with the Legislature dependent upon the commissioners to communicate problems as they occur.

Unfortunately, there are two recently publicized examples of the lack of communication between the commissioners appointed to supervise state agencies and the Legislature.  The Legislative Audit Council recently released a report detailing the failures of the Employment Security Commission. The ESC has gone from an $800 million surplus in 2000 to insolvency in 2010 at a time when unemployed South Carolinians need these benefits most. The report specifically noted that the ESC failed to give the Legislature adequate information about the declining trust fund balance nor did the ESC makes recommendations to prevent the fund’s decline as required by state law.

The events leading up to the closure of I-385 provide another example. A unilateral decision was made by the DOT more than two years ago to proceed with the project without any effort being made to form a consensus with Upstate legislators. The DOT commissioners provided no oversight over this project as evidenced by their own comments. The DOT failed to communicate with other agencies, such as the Department of Commerce, to develop an economic impact study – a failure that brings their cost savings claim into question.  The DOT did little to prepare the public for the closure until they started receiving belated pressure from Upstate legislators and the press.

If we look at these two examples, we know that the lack of oversight is systemic to our state government as a whole. Furthermore, the mismanagement exposed at ESC has cost the state real tax dollars – unlike other recent scandals that have been the primary focus of the news media. We reached a point in 2009 where the credibility of these agencies burned while the Legislature fiddled around with impeaching the Governor.

Real reform will begin when the Legislature develops a comprehensive plan to oversee our state agencies. Appointments to each commission should be based on qualifications not political relationships. Communication between the Legislature and the commissioners should be proactive. The Legislature should use its existing standing committee structure and county delegation structure to establish frequent communication with the commission members. If state agencies under-perform, commissioners should be held accountable. If we are willing to impeach our Governor over his travel arrangements, we certainly should be willing to dismiss commissioners whose agencies are clearly out of control. Once we have re-established control over those responsible for oversight, we can then continue preserving that which works and improving that which does not.

Much has been made of the budget cuts that have occurred because of falling tax revenue. The portion of state tax revenue received by the various agencies has dropped almost $2 billion in two years. However, South Carolinians are still spending over $5 billion per year on the operation of their state government. This amount does not include the monies received directly from the Federal government in the form of income redistribution. Now more than ever, South Carolinians deserve an efficiently operating state government. Interestingly, the audit report detailing the problems at the ESC concluded that the agency would be more efficiently operated under the authority of the Governor. However, the historical stance of the Legislature does not suggest that the Governor will ever be granted these broad powers. This leaves the Legislature with the duty to aggressively reform the system that it has fought to protect. We cannot afford the alternative.